Selena Severson on the hazards of secondhand smoke

uncle-sam-put-out-cigaretteA full 90 years before U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop published his 1986 report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking, and 110 years before U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona released his 2006 follow-up report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, Selena Severson published an article alerting doctors to the dangers of exposing children and teens to secondhand smoke.

In her 1896 paper, Effects of Cigarette Smoke Upon Children and Youth, Selena Severson details the physiological effects of tobacco smoke on numerous systems. She not only urges doctors not to subject their young patients to tobacco smoke, but implies that all people, young and old—doctors included—should give up smoking.

In the discussion of her article (pages 348 to 350), it is amusing to see two of the four doctors (Dr. Tanner and Dr. Caldwell) defend their habit of smoking in general (Dr. Tanner) and while seeing patients (Dr. Caldwell).

It is interesting as well to note that Selena’s argument was made decades before the link between tobacco and cancer was established. Her argument is based on tobacco smoke’s effect of producing functional disturbances in major organs and systems, and the deleterious effect that responding to these disturbances has on still-growing individuals.

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Selena Severson’s autograph book

Front cover of albumSelena Severson was born in September, 1862, the fourth of five daughters of Sever and Martha Severson. She was only two years old when her father died of dysentery while serving in the Union Army in the Civil War. Despite this devastating setback, the Severson sisters grew up to be strong, successful women.

Selena grew up with her family in Black Earth, Wisconsin, and in 1880, at the age of 18, enrolled in the Wisconsin State College at Whitewater (now the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater), a rural, four-year, co-educational, residential college founded in 1868 as the Whitewater Normal School. While at Whitewater, she earned her teaching certification and then returned to Black Earth to teach for two years.

After teaching in Black Earth, she returned to Whitewater to finish her degree, graduating in the class of 1887. After graduation, she taught for a year in Berthoud, Colorado, then for one year in Fort Collins, Colorado, and then for two years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Around 1891, Selena enrolled in a medical college for women in Chicago (presumably the Woman’s Hospital Medical College, which changed its name to the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School in 1891/1892). She was entered in Illinois’ Official Register of Legally Qualified Physicians in 1895. She practiced medicine in Chicago for a time, and then relocated to Madison, Wisconsin, to be near her family once more.

In this post, I’d like to share with you Selena Severson’s 1878 autograph book, which I just finished digitizing today. Transcriptions and analysis of this book will be provided in a future post. Charlie and Nancy Frey generously allowed me to borrow and digitize this book along with Sever Severson’s diary.

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